Tuesday, December 11

Sometimes I can’t reconcile myself to Tolstoy’s optimistic view of humanity. At one point, Nekhlyudov comes to the conclusion that most people “have become bad only because of their office,” (449). I don’t know whether Tolstoy actually believes this, whether he wishes it were the truth, whether he’s just portraying Nekhlyudov as an optimist or a naïf, but sometimes it really bothers me! He says that, then shows umpteen examples of people treating others cruelly and inhumanely, and there is always a reason why they can’t feel compassion; they’re annoyed at dumb bureaucratic things like tedious paperwork, or they’re hot, or they had a fight with their wife. As much as I am enjoying this novel and think that Tolstoy is wonderful, I think he’s guilty of some rationalization himself. I’m sure his optimistic view of humanity makes him want to give rational explanations for peoples’ motivations at behaving cruelly, but I don’t think there always is a rational explanation, unfortunately.

Maybe Tolstoy is reacting to more pessimistic writers like Zola, and maybe it was just the trend of the time period he was writing in to try to discover and attribute psychological motives for all kinds of behavior because of the emergence of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I haven’t read any of his other works, but it seems to me as I read this section that he is either naïve or doesn’t want to address the fact that sometimes people are cruel simply because they can be. The prison guards are always treating prisoners badly because they (the guards) are in a bad mood or don’t want to be bothered, but never because they are power-hungry or simply cruel. I know the point is that this system dehumanizes not only the prisoners, but everyone involved in the system, from guards to magistrates to cabinet members. I know he doesn’t think these are good excuses for treating others badly, but it’s like he’s saying that nobody would be this way if they didn’t work somewhere that dehumanized them and others, and I don’t believe that. I think people often seek those jobs because they already have a disregard for other humans and because they are compelled by self-interest and want to wield power over others.

I think it would be more realistic for me if, just once, a character would show up whose cruelty wasn’t explained in some way, or is explained thus, “he was cruel simply because he could get away with it/it made him feel powerful.” Maybe it sounds crazy, but I need that in order to make it fit better into my worldview. I don’t believe that all people are good at heart but have lost their way because they let self-interest guide them. Perhaps I’m too influenced by postmodern, nihilistic novels and films, but I think that part of the reason people would choose jobs like prison guard to begin with is because they need to feel powerful and they like pushing people around (I’ve met some ex-wives of cops who would agree).

I know many people take or stay at jobs they are not particularly well-suited for because they need the money or it’s convenient, (me included), but I also know that people like jobs where they get to exert power or control over people. For example, I work in a finance office. Our office collections rep loves to talk about how if people don’t shape up, he’ll repossess their cars. Every other male who comes within sniffing distance of our building asks my boss if they can help him repossess something. I’m sure that the excitement and adrenaline rush of the thing is very alluring, but I’m also sure part of that adrenaline rush is the feeling of power one gets from taking someone’s car from them. The whole thing makes me uncomfortable.

I did not address it specifically, but I did read the whole section, from the men dying of sunstroke and Princess Korchagina’s ironic exclamation that the heat is killing her, to the convicts’ march across Russia to Siberia (I didn’t know they had to do this. It is horrible), to the description of the unfair and seemingly arbitrary injustices suffered by the political prisoners (Simonson seems like a real pill), to the end where Nekhlyudov must interrupt the officer’s bawdy story about a Hungarian woman “with Persian eyes” (I.e. a gypsy. Good on Nekhlyudov for condemning “this kind of attitude to women”) in order to visit Maslova and the political prisoners. I am fairly certain that when I get to the end of the novel I am going to cry because I won’t want it to be over.

Sunday, December 9

A Field Trip to Dante’s Inferno

I had an interesting experience the other day that called to my mind the attitudes of certain people portrayed in Resurrection. We went to the landfill for a Geology field trip. We rode to the landfill site from school in a van and the van I was in contained about 9 people. On the way to the landfill, one of the guys in the back was talking about how he had to go to alcohol class for 8 hours because he’d gotten caught consuming alcohol and is a minor. Everyone had an anecdote or story to contribute on this subject, because twentysomethings tend to be familiar with that sort of thing.

When we got to the landfill, we picked up the landfill director and drove to the see the sights of the landfill. On our way around to the new landfill area (which is a large, many tiered hole in the ground very much resembling Dante’s description of the Inferno), we passed a white Ada County truck bringing in trash picked up by the alternative sentencing participants in the Sheriff’s Inmate Labor Detail (SILD). The landfill director, who was in the middle of describing the types of jobs available at the landfill, took this opportunity to say to all of us, “There’s the Inmate Labor truck,” and I asked what kind of work they did—because I thought maybe some people were sentenced to work at the actual landfill rather than just pick up trash on the roadside (like I said, twentysomethings tend to be familiar with the consequences of excess alcohol consumption). “Well, you want to be careful that you don’t have too much fun. The Inmate Labor Program is for those who get punished for their sins and indiscretions and have to do hard labor for the County.”

Everyone kind of stopped talking for a minute. Finally one guy said, “It’s better than sitting in jail,” and the director said, smiling, “They think so, too.” My friend was incredulous at his use of the word “sins”—apparently she didn’t realize that a trip to the landfill would entail a morality lesson! Truly, I have not heard anyone use the word “sin” in a non-church situation, (outside of a novel or movie), in so long that I can’t remember. After he got out, my friend and I spent a long time discussing how judgmental and inappropriate it seemed for the guy to use the word and I commented that he’s probably never read Tolstoy.

I’m guessing that the landfill director has never read Tolstoy because he would probably be in the camp of Nekhlyudov’s brother-in-law and his smug assertion that, “innocent people are never punished—or, at least, with very rare exceptions. But the guilty are punished…every thief knows that stealing is wrong and that he ought not to steal—that stealing is wicked,” (410-11). Now, I’m not arguing that the people sentenced to the SILD are innocent; I know several people who’ve had to do it because they drove drunk when they knew they shouldn’t have. My main objection is the guy’s use of the word “sin,” because it presumes the following: A) that everyone has the same notion of religious morality, and B) that we all feel the same as him in reserving the right to judge and condemn others based on this notion, or C) it’s his place to engage in such pedagogy because he has a carload of students at his facility. I don’t like it when people arbitrarily presume that I share their views, especially when it comes to religion.

In a way it resembles Nekhlyudov’s experience in this section of the novel. Everyone thinks he’s crazy for wanting to help the prisoners and peasants and they don’t want to try to understand either him or the people he’s trying to help. One of them, and I can’t remember who because there were so many of them and they all blend together, (Tolstoy makes a good example of government bureaucracy and red tape and the schmoozing it takes to get things done), is described as someone who doesn’t believe anything religion-wise, but he thinks it’s bad for the peasants to have religious views outside of the state-sponsored religion. Then he helps Nekhlyudov anyway and sets them free. Most of the people Nekhlyudov deals with are the same way; at first they are firmly resolved to refuse his requests because he is going against what they consider normal, then they sign over prisoners’ freedom as soon as he asks. So what happened to their resolve not to break with order and normalcy? Are they more humane than they appear at first, are they just indifferent, or are they spineless?

Tuesday, December 4

In this section Tolstoy gives us again a scene in which a bunch of upper class socialites are attending a party and behaving falsely. It reminds me of gatherings I’ve attended at art galleries, etc. Sometimes they can be really fun, but other times they are really boring, especially when you see it’s just a bunch of people who already know each other and seem to only be interested in talking about their own inside jokes or reliving their good old high school days or talking about people who have long since moved away. Then it can be pretty pointless and empty seeming.
Even worse, I once attended an annual party with the theme of “Pimps and Ho’s,” [sic]. In case you don’t know what this is, the Pimps & Ho’s theme party was popularized by rap musicians in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s. People attending these parties dress up like either hookers or pimps and drink a lot of whatever they imagine rappers or pimps and hos drink, (in other words, everything). Usually there is a lot of drug-doing going on as well. It ends up with everyone trying to outdo each other in crassness and debauched behavior, but in a very affected and pathetic way, (though I doubt any of them has ever heard the word “debauched” before). What it actually boils down to is a group of acquaintances who are drawn together by the fact that they frequent the same watering hole, parading around in too few clothes in mid-November, each hell-bent on doing something legendarily outrageous, most of whom end up puking on the host’s lawn before shambling away at sunrise.
The Pimps and Ho’s party was hardly the same as the soiree Nekhlyudov wades through to talk to Maslennikov, but there seemed to be a similar pervasive air of artificiality—the least of which were the ridiculous costumes worn by the pimps and hos. I heard several exchanges of phone numbers at that party that sounded like this, “Hey, give me your phone number again? Every time you tell me it I lose it, but this time I’m gonna call you and we’ll get drunk!” I’ve no doubt this was finally the magic occasion where they managed to make good on this promise.
There was a guy who was hugging everyone and who seemed genuinely friendly and interested in what other people had to say. As soon as he left, everyone complained about how much they hated him. Most people would be really friendly to someone when they walked past, then badmouth them as soon as they were out of earshot. This is what reminds me of the Maslennikovs’ party. The way everyone is offended by Nekhlyudov’s abrupt departure and talks about him afterwards reminds me the way everyone at the Pimps & Ho's was offended by the too-friendly guy and badmouthed him when he left. It seems more absurd, though, since Nekhlyudov actually did behave somewhat rudely whereas this guy was just being friendly. I remember Nekhlyudov geting annoyed at jury duty because an overly friendly guy ignored social mores and was too familiar with him until he (Nekhlyudov) found more important things to occupy his mind, namely Maslova.
There is an interesting contrast between the upper class social gatherings Nekhlyudov attends and the scenes at the prison. All of the interactions at the prison are more genuine than the upper class get-togethers, whether they take place in the cells or in the visiting room. I think part of what Tolstoy is saying is that the leisured classes have built up all of this affectation to cover up the fact that they have nothing better to do. At least learning and maintaining all of these social regulations gives them something to occupy their time when they aren’t depriving prisoners of their civil rights and/or having them flogged. I’m hoping to see Nekhlyudov interact with the peasants on his estate to see what that is like.
This is unrelated, but I don’t understand why the political prisoners seem to have it so much easier than the other prisoners, which is what we see when Nekhlyudov goes to visit Vera Oh-God-I-can’t-say-her-name-a. Their visiting room doesn’t have mesh wires between the visitors and the prisoners. I’m guessing it’s because they are probably mostly upper class and respectable middle class people. I think they would be the only ones who could afford the luxury of being radical; both literally because they have access to education and reading materials and free time, also because their status protects them from harsher punishment. If there are any poor “political” prisoners, they probably get thrown in the regular, lice-ridden jail on trumped-up or fabricated charges, like the Menshovs or the 130 men with expired passports.

Sunday, December 2

It’s interesting that Tolstoy actually sees fit to point out just how fake are the interactions of Sophia Vassilyevna and Kolossov: "Nekhlyudov saw, first, that neither of them cared anything about the play or each other, and that if they talked it was only to satisfy the physical need to exercise the muscles of the throat and tongue after eating," (132). It seems to me that most people don’t want to admit or break the illusion that sometimes conversation is just as Tolstoy describes it above. Every day at work I interact with people whose common greeting is "How are you?" and everyone knows you don't actually give any answer other than, "good" or "great!" or some sort of cliché such as, “living for the weekend.” You never say how you’re actually feeling or if you're having a bad day, because most people don’t want to hear that.
I’ve experimentally answered people a couple of times with things like, “Actually, I’ve been having a terrible week,” just to see what happened. On each occasion, the other person got visibly uncomfortable and was surprised that I gave an earnest answer. One time the other person just changed the subject entirely, and once an acquaintance actually said something like, “Oh, I don’t want to hear about anything bad!” which I found rather rude, because why ask if you don’t really care? I mean, why don’t we just ask some other meaningless question in greeting, such as, “Do you have a third nipple?” or something? It would be the same thing. Why not something totally nonsensical like, “Do bread lights have lice?” and the codified expected answer could be, “Mathematics!” To me it seems as pointless.
It always makes me feel like these exchanges are sort of empty, and like there isn’t any real exchange or communication occurring. It’s kind of the way the whole scene plays out between Sophia Vassilyevna, Kolossov, and Nekhlyudov. Nekhlyudov isn’t in the mood to play along with this ruse of talking for the sake of talking and going along with all of the Princess’s artificial nonsense, so she gets annoyed when he gives her short, dry, honest answers and doesn’t keep up his end of the conversation. She’s receiving all these men in her room because part of her youthful façade is that they are her admirers, and the rumor about her affair with her doctor is probably a false one started by Sophia Vassilyevna herself. Her power struggle with Philip the handsome footman on pages 133-4 is hilarious, and it further underscores her vanity and ridiculousness that she brings in her attractive servant and orders him around in front of her “admirers.” What a totally boring, pathetic life!
I am reminded of this artificiality in the scene where the prisoners attend a service in the ornate, glittering church. The priest is wearing a gold garment that he can’t move in; he leads the prisoners in prayers for the Emperor, which seems sort of blasphemous. The part, though, where Tolstoy describes the preparation of the communion bread and wine/Body and Blood of Christ on p. 181-2 is the best. Such dry sarcasm! He reduces the act of transubstantiation (or whatever they call it in the Russian Orthodox church) to the most ridiculous, comical sounding ritual, and the priest comes off sounding like a hypocrite and a bit of a buffoon: “hampered though he was by the gold cloth sack he had on…sinking to his knees and kissing the table and the objects on it…the most important operation was when the priest picked up a napkin in both hands and rhythmically and smoothly waved it over the saucer and the golden cup.” It reads like a weird ritual carried out by a superstitious child or a mentally challenged or a crazy person. Then Tolstoy tells the reader, “This was supposed to be the moment when the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood, and therefore this part of the service was performed with the utmost solemnity.”
How can anyone believe this silliness would effect a miracle? Indeed, Tolstoy tells us later that the priest himself doesn’t believe the bread and wine actually undergo a transformation—and that nobody can—but that the priest believes, “one ought to believe it,” (185). The part where the priest gives some of the blood and body to the children is a scene I can’t read without howling with laughter: “the priest carefully took a bit…and thrust it far into the mouth of each child in turn, while the subdeacon, wiping the children’s mouths, in a gay voice sang a song about the children eating God’s flesh and drinking His blood,” (p. 182). How utterly grotesque and morbid this sounds! But wait, it gets better: “the priest carried the cup back…and drinking up all the blood left in the cup and eating all the remaining bits of God’s body, and painstakingly licking round his moustaches and wiping his mouth and the cup, briskly marched out from behind the partition, in the most cheerful frame of mind…” There is so much wrong here. I’m not religious, but it is disgusting to imagine the priest licking the blood of Christ off his “moustaches,” as though it’s a tasty morsel. And if it’s supposed to be a solemn occasion, then maybe the priest shouldn’t be quite so cheerful. It’s not surprising, therefore, when Tolstoy breaks into the admonishment on the following pages about how blasphemous these practices are. It’s pretty obvious how disgusting he finds all of it by his description of this transubstantiation ritual.